Forms of Life: Breathing New Life into Traditional Genres
by Patrick Neal on April 19, 2012, Hyperallergic and Boro
Talking with Tamas Veszi, artist and founder of Radiator Gallery in Long Island City, we discussed the ingenious ways in which artists often take matters into their own hands when it comes to finding avenues for their work outside of what has become an increasingly institutionalized art world. Radiator Gallery shares a floor with art studios where an international roster of working artists, with an openness toward contemporary art practices, are working together in a spirit of collaboration and support, stepping outside the studio to don the hat of curator or gallery director.
The gallery’s current exhibit, From Life, which is their third show and curated by husband and wife artists Zoe Pettijohn Schade and Christopher Schade, is a savvy exploration of how new technologies, current events and aesthetic concerns can breathe new life into traditional genres.
Most art students are familiar with the expression “from life,” first uttered in Painting 101. Working from perception, observation or “from life” means to set up your easel or work station in front of a model, still life or in “plein air,” and to use as inspiration the human figure, nature or the objects in front of you for art-making. Modernist painters and sculptors constantly mined these things as a way to make new statements about mankind at given times throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but that all ended about sixty years ago as art for art’s sake was thrown into question. If it is impossible to believe in formalism as an end in itself anymore, where heights of beauty and truths of the human condition are now just pipe dreams, many artists still remain reluctant to throw the baby out with the bath water or trade in their brushes for iPads.
The writer, Will Heinrich, in his review of The New Museum’s Triennial and the Whitney Biennial, mentions, “ … after decades of burdensome over thinking, we’re now finally dealing with art history the way Vodoun deals with Catholic hagiology, cherry-picking figures of power for ceremonies of our own while blithely ignoring the hierarchical systems of their original context.”
Walking through From Life, one encounters such a multifarious mash-up of art historical references and mediums. Several of the artists present two pieces that are variations on a theme. As one takes in the work on display, it becomes a process of cross-referencing which artists are like-minded and who has been talking to whom. Most of the work in this exhibit is derived from landscape and in a few cases the model and still life, but in all cases, the basis or starting off point appears to be anchored in the phenomenological — a sensory involvement with medium and model that manages to yield fresh ideas.
This is exemplified by Christopher Schrade’s paintings. In his two landscapes, hung side-by-side, we’re practically given a lesson in new-fangled abstraction derived from representation. A smaller painting, “Cove,” is a straight-forward depiction of a blue cove and grassy dune spied through trees in a woodland. Beside it, the larger “Cove 2,” picks up the surface motif of “Cove,” but takes license with the reinterpretation of natural forms. Leaves, water and pines are transformed into flat, colorful camouflage patterns and Arabic glyphs, and the actual wood grain of the support is traced and colored in bringing landscape to life as synecdoche. By the time one sees the overall gestalt of the painting as a miniature Clyfford Still, a tertiary reading of landscape as aerial map has set in.
Douglas Goldberg’s two small sculptures, beautifully modeled in Italian agate and alabaster, have the style of 19th Century Beaux-Arts realism. Perfectly rendered veils and shrouds hint at some histrionic drama that was so often the theme of this earlier academic art. But with “Canary,” mounted on a wall, and “Microphone,” perched on the edge of a stand, the cloaks are the predominant subject, obscuring the forms beneath them. The precarious placement of both works and the obfuscation of anything living, throw attention more so on modern sculptural concerns of process and the elimintion of pedestal. Anna Ehrsam’s monochromatic sculptures in plaster and various metals are also visually sumptuous. The titles and subjects of her work — “Headstone“ depicts the lopped off head of a grimacing two-faced man and “Breast” is an abstract arrangement of balanced orbs — are beguiling. Her range of styles combined with a facility with materials opens up a world of associative possibilities.
Alec Dartley’s two ink on paper drawings have large passages of a harlequin-diamond pattern in primary web-friendly colors. Only after seeing this does one take in forest scenes; rendered naturalistically in grey scale ink, they ground the composition and give the viewer some footing. Dartley seems to be cordoning off areas of his drawing surface creating interstices of alternating red, blue and green. Within the colored areas he allows himself to riff here and there, exaggerating his own marks resulting in a Charles Burchfield-type effect. Likewise, Joshua Marsh appears to derive his imagery from actual settings; one can make out a stream or maybe a Pepsi can in his pencil on clay paper drawings. But his scribbly marks take on a life of their own, creating tone and atmosphere independent of depicting grass, wood or can. Relinquishing the need to show every detail, Marsh proves just how active negative space can become.
Zoe Pettijohn Schade’s two gouaches’s, “Infinity Box 10 and 11,” bring to mind Lucas Samaras’ “Mirrored Room” (1966), mazes of geometric shapes in steel and copper tones reflecting off each other in perpetuity. Both paintings depict small cubes and triangles observed through a polygon portal but the light sources are markedly different ranging from somber to highly saturated. The changing light sources in Marc Connor’s two landscape paintings comes from nature rather than electricity. Connor’s heavily encrusted oil paint surfaces could make him heir to Frank Auerbach and the London School. Titled “Twilight” and Soft Day, the subject appears to be the same field and mountain experienced at different times of day. Fascinating, as material objects, layered in the contrasting skins of previous sessions, the work existentially capture the passage of time both as illusion and physical record.
Everest Hall’s oil paintings are rife with patterns that foreground a sinister snake and android-looking skull. Each object is set in a ninety degree space resting on a horizontal plane against a vertical wall but the floral grounds flatten out in the manner of Matisse. In somber ochre and deep blue, the works could be flags or insignia for a malevolent race. Skull’s feature prominently in Dan Sutherland’s intimate paintings, all oil on aluminum. These works look like they begin from studio setups generating images that may be further enhanced by filters or willful abstraction. The paintings have a beautiful tonal scale of crimson, rusts and midnight blue and when imagery emerges it is often through a flurry of small waxy, crosshatch strokes.
Colin Hunt’s drawing and painting seem to draw from the more literary strands of surrealism. His oil on metal painting, “The Walk at Lake Galena,” depicts a park setting rich with symbolism and the subconscious that appears to use a photographic collage from which to launch its fantastical imagery. The painting has a trompe l’oeil three-dimensionality; a diorama made up of cut and pasted photos and snipped type, folded corners and shadows included. One of Nancy Goldring’s wall pieces is literally in relief jutting out a bit from the wall. Using the Sienna street, Via dei Solitari, as her subject, she recreates a view of rustic houses in paper, thread, pencil and mylar. A projection of this first work is used as source material for a nearby photograph combining a soft overlay of a bucolic landscape; a self-generating project with a love of materials. Unorthodox materials are employed by Andras Borocz who works with gold leaf affixed to the back of glass from which he is able to scratch to create images. Rendering the detritus of a desk drawer or tool kit; paper clips, measuring tape, scissors a saw, gives these ordinary objects the aura of an illuminated biblical manuscript.
Opening night for From Life featured a performance by Pygmy Jerboa, a duo comprised of Maria Stankova and Iván Naranjo. Positioned in front of a freight elevator, with sound board and microphone, she read from a script while he accompanied with electronic hums and pulses that segued into music. If Stankova’s script contained words, the resulting recitation sounded less like language and more like a combination of staccato-like gibberish and vocal rhythms complementing Naranjo’s instruments. The performance seemed a close cousin to a sound installation by Israel Martinez, “Two espressos in separate cups” (nd), in a smaller annex space of the galley. Continuing the landscape allusion — albeit in audible form — visitor’s to the gallery might intercept the chirps of crickets and birds or more nocturnal animals while walking about the space. Then, a dog barks, a voice calls, we hear a busy highway or airport which glides into an electronic vibration that becomes musical. None of this registers as out of place until the sounds amplify, the listener unable to ignore the change in the environment.
Tamas Veszi mentioned that performances would continue intermittently throughout the run of the exhibit, using performers casually enlisted by fellow artists with an eye or ear for art that broaden the scope of the works on display. Radiator Gallery is an edgy and sophisticated addition to the ever growing Long Island City arts scene.
From Life is curated by Zoe Pettijohn Schade and Christopher Schade April 6–28, 2012 and Andras Borocz’s “Canary in the Coal-Mine” Performance will take place Friday, April 20 at 7:30pm at Radiator Gallery (10-61 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens).